Amidst the confusion over how to best harness the powers of artificial intelligence, this week has provided one clear example of how not to use the technology.
Since Michael Schumacher hit his head on a rock in 2013 while skiing and was placed into a medically induced coma, the world has been waiting to hear from the great man. Little is known about his condition. He has not been seen in public since. There have been no photos and very few updates on his health, the family guarding his privacy intently, even as Schumacher’s son – Mick – has moved in and out of the Formula 1 paddock in his own right. Unsurprisingly, there have been absolutely no interviews.
Until this week, that is. Die Aktuelle is a weekly magazine whose latest issue featured on its front cover a photo of Schumacher grinning, with the headline “Michael Schumacher, the first interview!”
Groundbreaking news and a coveted global exclusive it would be, if there were an iota of truth to it. Die Aktuelle did not interview Michael Schumacher. Instead, they generated a conversation with artificial intelligence software designed to imitate Schumacher. This rather crucial detail is not revealed until you open the magazine.
Handled with care, properly contextualised and carried out in consultation with the Schumacher family, you could potentially justify this story as an exercise in AI technology. Instead, Die Aktuelle – which ironically translates as ‘The Actual’ – used the Schumachers’ plight to try and shift magazines.
In this sense, and this sense alone, it worked. The world is talking about a magazine that, until the Schumacher stunt, the vast majority had not heard of. But with the news today that the Schumacher family are planning legal action against the outlet, you have to wonder how Die Aktuelle saw the stunt unfolding.
“No meagre, nebulous half-sentences from friends. But answers from him! By Michael Schumacher, 54!” the article reads. “Here it is — the incredible interview! With redeeming answers to the most burning questions that the whole world has been asking for so long.”
In the back and forth, Schumacher-bot said: “My life has completely changed since [the accident]. That was a horrible time for my wife, my children and the whole family.
“I was so badly injured that I lay for months in a kind of artificial coma, because otherwise my body couldn’t have dealt with it all,” it continued.
Existential fears over AI range from job loss to disseminating misinformation to, as has been on flagrant display this week, impersonating influential figures. Die Aktuelle’s Schumacher chatbot was not a particularly convincing impression, but wading into such a murky, controversial topic – especially through somebody as vulnerable as Schumacher – was destined to end in disaster.
If you think it might have been an innocent miscalculation, this appears to be the third time Die Aktuelle have disingenuously portrayed the Schumacher family since the accident.
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In 2014, soon after the accident with Schumacher still in a coma, they published a front cover with Michael and his wife Corinna on the front cover. The headline? “Awake”. The story turned out to be about famous people in the past who woke up from comas.
A year later, they were stirring the pot again, claiming on their front cover that “a new love” had entered into Corrina’s life. The article was actually about the couple’s daughter, Gina. A legal case ensued, and (interestingly, considering another showdown seems on the horizon) Die Aktuelle won.
Given the global storm that their latest stunt has caused, set against the backdrop of a raging AI debate, it seems unlikely that Die Aktuelle will again prove victorious. Even with the conversation so polarised, few would argue that this ‘interview’ was anything more than an immoral, poorly-executed attempt at attention.